Solutions spotlight: From industrial automation to industrial autonomy

Oct. 5, 2020

Control magazine editor in chief Keith Larson and Dr. Tsuyoshi Abe, senior vice president and head of the Marketing Headquarters at Yokogawa, talk about the ongoing transition that is underway—from industrial automation to industrial autonomy, and what that means for the future of the process industries.


Keith Larson: Hello, this is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and Welcome to this Solutions Spotlight edition of our Control Amplified podcast.

Today, I’m pleased to have with me Dr. Ted Abe, senior vice president and head of the Marketing Headquarters at Yokogawa. We here to talk about the ongoing transition that is underway—from industrial automation to industrial autonomy, and what that means for the future of the process industries.

Welcome, Dr. Abe, a real pleasure to have you.

Ted Abe: Thank you very much, Mr. Larson.

KL: What is that makes industrial autonomy different from industrial automation?

TA: Autonomous is different from automation in many subtle ways. First of all, Yokogawa came up with a definition of industrial autonomy is. Our definition of autonomy is that plant assets and operations have learning and adaptive capabilities that allow a response with minimal human interaction, empowering operators to perform higher-level optimization tasks. This allows plants to run, learn and adapt, and then, thrive in tomorrow’s environment. Automation involves the performance of a sequence of highly structured preprogrammed tasks, each of which requires human oversight, with the potential for intervention. For example, an operator could be responsible for safely starting up a unit, or for initiating a switchover from one crude feedstock to another. Autonomy goes beyond automation by adding layers of smart sensing and machine cognition to anticipate and respond to unforeseen circumstances, ultimately removing the need for human intervention. In a fully autonomous operation, the system is responsible for all aspects of the operation— from startup through to safe shutdown.

KL: What factors are driving the process industries toward greater autonomy in their operations?

TA: Well, these include the need to increase productivity and efficiency, of course ensure safety, improve quality, and reduce facility operating costs. It is expected that by utilizing technologies such as sensing technology, artificial intelligence, big data analysis, and robotics, as well as conducting complex analysis by broadly linking systems, we will be able to achieve results that go beyond anything previously achieved through manual operations. With the need to enhance safety in the post-corona world, there will also be a growing need for remote monitoring, remote control, remote engineering, and even services.

KL: Where do the process industries stand today in terms of that journey to autonomous operations?

TA: So, the transition from industrial automation to industrial autonomy is already underway, however it won’t happen overnight. I say, Rome was not built in a day.

Yokogawa has conducted a global survey of 500 customers in major process industries, no wonder around one-third of the respondents said that the primary operations at their plants and facilities are at what we consider to be an automated level, that is, operational technology is in control of select processes and humans are alerted when intervention is required. Interestingly, the number who said they were already at a semi-autonomous level was not that much lower. That would imply we are already on the high side of “automated” and are transitioning to “semi-autonomous” operations. However, there are significant differences by industry. As industries evolve, autonomy will begin to permeate process plants in multiple functional domains, including process operations, planning and scheduling, engineering, field operations, maintenance, and engineering. 

Further autonomy requires the conversion and complete automation of manual tasks human action will be required only under exceptional circumstances. Not only can production processes be made autonomous, but so can higher level functions. Autonomy could expand beyond the traditional controls and efficiency focus to include safety, reliability, margin optimization, compliance, supply chain management, and other manufacturing operations and functions.

KL: Ted, are there particular industries that are leading the way?

TA: Our research found that autonomous operations are progressing faster in industries such as oil & gas - it is both midstream and upstream, refining, chemicals, and petrochemicals, where modeling and simulation techniques are more advanced. Yokogawa believes that it is easy to introduce systems at offshore platforms and other remote midstream and upstream facilities, where the need for unmanned operations is very, very high.

Oil and gas companies are pursuing remote operations strategies for both onshore and offshore assets. This is particularly true for highly complex, remote, hazardous facilities. The objectives are to reduce costs, eliminate potentially adverse effects on environmentally sensitive areas, ease the recruitment of operators to work at such sites, lessen the need for personnel to work in remote and/or unsafe locations, and better manage dispersed assets with centralized resources. Yokogawa has helped numerous companies reduce the need for the stationing of personnel at remote sites by providing consolidated control room design, advanced control and monitoring, SCADA, and data integration and visualization solutions, to name just a few. 

KL: What effect has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the shift to autonomous operations?

TA: Definitely yes. Clearly, the pandemic has changed thinking on what qualifies as safe operations. Processors with low levels of automation are investing in automation to allow for safe social distancing, and this comes even as facilities that are already highly automated take their next steps by investing in connectivity tools to enable remote operations and collaboration from a distance. In each case, the organizations will have moved closer to the ultimate goal of autonomous operations when the pandemic eases, and we expect that this shift will gain momentum as the economic situation improves over time. We believe the pandemic will accelerate the shift to industrial autonomy. Fortunately, much of the necessary technology and data for the move to autonomous operations already exists. A significant portion of this data comes from sensors in the control network, or is obtainable with wireless sensors. Various technologies, like AI, are available to process the data and add intelligence. While AI may be essential to achieve high levels of autonomy, it may not be required for low autonomy levels. For higher levels, there's a need to develop an all-encompassing architecture to integrate internal and external domains.

KL: What are the stages of maturity that an organization will go through on its journey from industrial automation to industrial autonomy (IA2IA)?

TA: The steps taken to achieve autonomous operations will depend on the type of facility and the level of automation.  For example, greenfield facilities can be designed from the start to have higher levels of autonomy. 

On the other hand, brownfield facilities, autonomy will most likely occur in a step-by-step fashion. This staged approach to realize autonomous operations will occur through the adoption of autonomous components that accomplish a specific task or an individual function. This could be in the form of an AI algorithm learning to manipulate and control process variables for the opening or closing of valves, for instance. 

The autonomous components can be combined and coordinated in an orchestrated manner to achieve higher levels of autonomy. Autonomous orchestration will enable autonomy to expand to other functions like asset management, value chain optimization, and so on. This will require broadening the scope of data collection and analysis from individual processes to encompass other functions and activities. 

Initially, autonomy will be focused on recurring, harmful, difficult, or error prone tasks. This will not only reduce the workload but also assist and augment human decision making, therefore improving productivity. The challenge for workers will be to understand and work alongside autonomous components and systems. 

In preparation for autonomous operations, companies should examine their current processes and practices. Some manual field operations might need to be automated by means such as the combination of procedure automation and AI, or be performed by robotics. Equipment and processing capabilities might need to be bolstered with addition sensors. Yokogawa provides world class products and solutions that predict potential equipment and process faults, identify root causes, and predict product quality. 

KL: Yokogawa’s IA2IA model describes “symbiotic autonomy” as the ultimate destination of the autonomy journey. Can you tell me more about the organizational needs and business benefits to be gained at this stage of maturity?

TA: When looking beyond individual plants, we can start to consider the autonomous interaction of data and resources between plants, which we call symbiotic autonomy. In a world that now expects enterprises to consider their operations from the point of view of planetary sustainability, this approach can deliver multi-win outcomes for a much wider range of stakeholders.

Symbiotic autonomy is our ideal goal for IA2IA. Yokogawa plans to play a leading role in making symbiotic autonomy a reality across the world. This will point the way to the ultimate goal of the “industrial automation to industrial autonomy” (IA2IA) maturity model, creating ecosystems where people, companies, multi-industries across the entire planet will be benefitted. In short, all of the stakeholders in symbiotic autonomy ecosystem, regardless of different industry sectors, share resources, I mean we transition with each other in order to achieve net-zero emissions as the ultimate circular economy at the end of the day. As we like to say: “What’s next for our planet? Let’s make it smarter.”

KL: That's certainly quite a vision and certainly something to strive for. Thank you for, on behalf of all of us, for helping advance that vision.

Thank you, Dr. Abe, for sharing your insights with us today, really appreciate you having us.

TA: Yeah, why don't you join us for symbiotic autonomy?

KL: Thanks also to Yokogawa for sponsoring today’s episode. I’m Keith Larson, and you’ve been listening to a Control Amplified podcast. Thanks for joining us, and if you’ve enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at the iTunes store and at Google Podcasts. Plus, you can find the full archive of past episodes at Thank you again Dr. Abe, and signing off, until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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